The United Launch Alliance has long been trying to launch a spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office, estimated to be worth more than $ 1 billion. Tuesday evening, hours before the company’s last attempt to launch the Delta IV Heavy booster, the mission was canceled again.
The weather at the launch site was far from optimal, but the mission was delayed due to a technical problem with the launch pad. What is noticeable is that this is now the third The problem the company, ULA, faced with its ground systems equipment at the Space Launch Complex-37 in Cape Canaveral, Florida for this trip.
The mission, codenamed NROL-44, was scheduled to launch in June. When it was postponed until late August, military officials did not give a reason for the delay. However, on August 29, everything seemed nominal as the three-core missile had counted down to take off from the Florida launch pad. The countdown reached zero, the three main RS-68 engines ignited, and the launch commander said, “Take off!”
But the missile did not fire. Instead, even as the flames burned around the three cores, the missile remained steady while aborting the hot flames. The second scrubbing operation delayed the important task for a few weeks as the engineers investigated the problem and ultimately determined that a ground systems regulator caused the launch abort. Essentially, three of these pad regulators deliver high-pressure helium to the main motors. Central motor regulator failure.
On Twitter, CEO of the company, Tory Bruno, Wrote, “The root cause of the regulator stuck in the side of the pillow is found. The diaphragm is torn, which can happen over time. Check the condition of the other two members. We will replace or rebuild as needed.” Ultimately the company will remove the regulators for all three engines, revamp and reinstall them. (Bruno did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)
After nearly a month, the company prepared once again to launch the NROL-44 mission, and even passed its launch readiness review. Then, the day before the September 26 launch date, the company postponed takeoff again. This time the culprit was a problem with the launcher’s swing arm retractor system, which pulls the fuel lines and other connections from the missile just before takeoff. It took the company a few days to fix this issue before setting a new launch date of Sept 29 – Tuesday evening just before midnight.
Then disaster struck again. Local storms delayed preparations before launch. And when the mobile service tower that supports the missile began to roll a few hours before launch, it ran into trouble as well. “When the MST roll started we detected a hydraulic leak in the ground system required to move the tower that needed further evaluation,” The company tweeted.
Assuming that the issue can be fixed quickly, NROL-44 is now scheduled to launch no later than 11:54 PM ET Wednesday (03:54 UTC Thursday). The company has a great safety record, and we can be sure it will only launch when everything is ready to go.
“There are only a few launches left.”
So what’s going on here with all these technical delays? Without being in-house or working directly on systems in Florida, it’s hard to know for sure. But there are some indisputable facts to consider.
First, the infrastructure in Launch Complex-37 is obsolete. NASA first built this panel in 1959 in support of the Saturn I. The Pad A has since fallen into disuse, but ULA acquired Launch Complex-37B about two decades ago and modified it in 2001 to support both of its heavy mono rockets. Core delta IV and three core delta IV. The first Delta 4 missile was launched from the platform in November 2002.
The notion that the infrastructure in the Delta IV board is getting longer in age is supported by Bruno’s comment about regulators’ wear and tear over time, as well as issues with the retractable arm and mobile service tower.
Another problem is that this pillow is used infrequently. The last Delta 4 missile flew from this launch site in August 2019, and the flight rate has been around only one missile per year since late 2016. Some ground systems involved in the launch can only be tested under launch conditions, so problems with equipment may only arise in Crisis Time.
Finally, there is the question of the future of the launcher. ULA has already retired the Delta IV single-core missile and plans to fly the Delta IV Heavy only four times after this mission before retiring in favor of the more cost-effective Vulcan-Centaur booster. Only two of these four flights will take place from Space Launch Complex-37, so the company has little incentive to invest heavily in infrastructure.
“There are only a handful of launches left for Delta IV Heavy, and the Space Launch-37 is heading to the cemetery,” said a launch source from Florida. “I’m sure money is being funneled to Vulcan and its launch pad, Space Launch Complex-41. These scrubs will undoubtedly frustrate other range users.”
Listing image by Trevor Mahlman for Ars